Excessiveness and the Human Child

Last updated on: Mar 8, 2022


Why do the Stoics have such a negative views of emotions? They describe emotions as a disease that must be eradicated in order to be virtuous, yet at the same time say that some emotions (eupatheiai) are good or can lead to virtue (such as aidôs and eros).[1] Moreover, they acknowledge that emotions are derived from the same source that makes us human (the hegemonikon).[2] Wouldn’t this make emotions natural and good in the sense that our hegemonikon is what ties us to nature and god? What gives?

            The Stoics were excellent judges of the human condition and recognized through observation and experience that we are created with a “builder’s bias”. This bias is our natural, god-given capacity and disposition for reason (nous). Reason separates humans from plants and animals. From this disposition arises its antithesis- the capacity for pathê (wrong reason). Without reason there is no pathê and without pathê there is no reason. It is from this uniquely human disposition that timeless questions like “what is the meaning of life”, “how does one live a happy life”, and “what is a happy life”.  Unlike other philosophies that posit qualified, complicated answers to these questions the Stoic doctrine is simple to understand, but not easy to achieve. Luckily for us, something being difficult doesn’t necessitate it’s impossibility. In this paper I will use the “simple, but not easy” mantra to defend the Stoic theory of emotions and their belief that action leads to progress, not pontification.

            To do so I begin by considering current “everyday” views on the emotions which generally boil down to claims that emotions are not only a valuable part of being human, but that they aren’t eradicable. With this frame of reference established I will then consider how the Stoic theory of emotions is often misunderstood in so far as current views of emotions do not frame emotions the same way. By this I mean that the Stoics believe emotions, specifically the pathê, to be a deterrence to living a happy, virtuous life with other human beings and as such create a psychological theory and process that allows them to actually achieve their goals (telos).

            In the next section I explain what I take to be the correct understanding of the Stoic view of emotions which is the view posited by Rosalind Hursthouse. She contributes the view that both children and adults display analogous excessive emotional responses in that they each have defective rational souls. That is, the rational soul of a human child is the same as an adult, therefore it is molded, shaped, and develops via language. She concludes that adults display the same excessive, childish emotions as the juvenile because they have just as much of a defective rational soul as the youth.

            I conclude by doubling down on Hursthouse’s thought and focusing it on the education of the human child holistically. I believe that if the adult and the child each have defective rational souls (to different extents no doubt) then what is needed to “fix” the excessiveness each displays in their emotions is to teach and train them using a model antithetical to the current “everyday” one. The Stoics provide us such a template and regimen to do so.


Primer: Problems and Misconceptions


The Problems

Because we are attempting to define complex conceptual ideas across different languages and vastly different cultures we must then focus on the topography of Stoic philosophy and not get bogged down in the terrain itself. It is the description of the emotion rather than the word ascribed to it that we care to discuss. The slippery nature of emotions makes them notoriously hard to precisely define and categorize, but the feelings associated with certain emotions seem to be shared between many different cultures. That being said, some common “everyday” views of emotions are that they are good and natural and that both the feeling of and expression of emotions demonstrates a healthy individual in touch with themselves and their affective being. Moreover, especially amongst today’s oppressive discourses, emotions like anger and contempt are endorsed as proof of existence[3] or as healing for self-respect.[4] It seems to be the case that folks who hold contemporary views of emotions have a “chicken or the egg” or a “nature versus nurture” problem in that the question is not about whether humans should be emotional, but rather which comes first, reason or emotion?


Stoic Misconceptions

The Stoic doctrine is often misunderstood as callous, inhuman, and robotic. The Stoic philosophy is a body itself comprised of logic, physics, and ethics.[5] This is more than just a play-on-words to describe their physicalist beliefs. Each part is connected to the other to create the body of Stoic philosophy. Their theory of emotions is no different in that in order to completely understand and appreciate it we must also know about their views on physics, ethics, sociology and teleology. Unfortunately, this extends beyond the bandwidth of this paper, and I will assume that the reader has some concept of the background or will refer elsewhere for content. Before beginning our investigation I’d like to dispel a few misconceptions about their theory of emotions.

            The first misconception is the belief that the Stoic sage (as the eminent Stoic) doesn’t feel emotions. From this belief also stems the idea that a good Stoic is unmoved by the pain and suffering of others and that the Stoic is only a man. These descriptions picture the Stoic sage as egotistical, lackluster, and apathetic. As we will cover shortly, the Stoic sage does in fact experience good emotions, which they call eupatheiai. They are, however, free from pathê (emotions that stem from wrong reason). Moreover, all non-sages experience pathê in their progress to attaining virtue. Within their own philosophy, emotions play a vital role in human life. Becoming a sage requires hard work, tenacity, self-discipline, understanding, and extensive knowledge of the world (especially of other humans). Once that goal is attained, however, the Stoic sage, as a perfected human being, enjoys the fruits of her labor and continues to live in harmonious accord with nature. Until then, the non-sage lives a self-absorbed, myopic, emotional existence. In short, emotions are still vital to the Stoic philosophy and humans cannot, nor should, completely eradicate all emotions completely.

            A second misunderstanding is that the Stoics think that all affective events are under our control, so we can stop feeling an emotion if we want. From this perspective the Stoics are labeled as robotic or just plain crazy. The misunderstanding begins from an unfounded belief that we cannot control our emotions, which the Stoics do endorse. The second part is one which the Stoics do not believe, which is the ability to rationally control the “excessiveness” trait of pathê. The standard Stoic phrase “focus on what you can control” is lost on an audience who thinks that they have limited control over themselves, their thoughts, behaviors, and actions. The Stoic answer to this is not, in fact, “life” or “emotions” rather it is “yourself”, “your mind”. Understanding the Stoic psychological framework provides the answer here (we’ll cover this in section 2). The only point in time that we are in control of our emotions is the point in which we are able to assent to an impression. Otherwise, pre-emotions (propatheiai) and “the running away” of the emotions is out of our control. In this way even the Stoic sage is subject to propatheiai, but the disobedience of pathê plagues only the non-sage.

            A third mistake is the belief that the Stoics think that mental illnesses are a result of individual error, that is if people were more rational then they would not be afflicted with these disorders. Generally speaking, this is false as the Stoic doctrine most often applies only to fully rational, capable human animals. But to refute the claim even more thoroughly there is disagreement amongst the Stoics even about what kind of mental events like depression, madness, amnesia, etc. are and whether or not being afflicted with these metal ailments may even cast a Stoic sage from his pedestal as an eminently rational human. So, those with mental disorders or ailments fall into a categorical “gray area” wherein another class of mental activities affect the mind but are not emotions.[6]


Stoic Theory of Emotions


Identifying Emotions

            In order to understand what an emotion is we need to comprehend the epistemological framework in which beliefs are formed. Emotions are grounded in beliefs about the world and beliefs are products of assent to impressions. The psychological process of forming beliefs follows a temporal order in which the presentation of an impression is made evident to the agent, the agent makes a judgement about the propositional content of the impression, and a belief is formed. Beliefs are formed as a result of the soul’s interaction with the world through a process called assent. Assent is the decisive point in this temporal process as it is the only point at which the agent has control of the impression prior to accepting or rejecting it as a true or false belief. Options include a) readily endorse as true and form a corresponding belief, b) reject the impression as false and form a corresponding belief, or c) withhold judgement on the impression (impulse with reservation).[7]

            Thus far, we can see that the basic process of forming beliefs involves a decision to be made on behalf of the agent about the truth or falsity of something in fact being what it is. Diving deeper, the Stoics differentiate between types of impressions, degrees of assent, and of the resulting beliefs formed. It is easiest to study these differences through the mental framework of the sage and the non-sage respectively. While the characteristics and qualities of the impressions, assent, and beliefs differ between the two, the process remains the same.

            The sage, with her perfect reasoning skills and wisdom assents only to kataleptic impressions. These are impressions which cannot be false. Kataleptic impressions take the following form: 1) it comes from what is, 2) it is stamped and sealed and molded in accordance with what is, and 3) it is of such a sort that it could not come from what is not.[8] Simply, it is what it appears to be. Sages only have strong assents to kataleptic impressions. A strong assent is an approval that cannot be persuaded otherwise (through argument, circumstance, feeling, etc.). The conjunction of the kataleptic impression with a strong assent gives the sage, and only the sage, access to epistêmê (knowledge).

            As for the non-sage, kataleptic impressions may be present and available for endorsement, however, the non-sage is not equipped to also judge the impression “as it is.” By default, this means that the impressions could be false and therefore cannot be kataleptic. Moreover, the non-sage, with his lack of epistemic breadth, depth, and security, second-guesses himself and is prone to being persuaded otherwise. This makes his assent weak. The result of a weak assent to an impression (kataleptic or not) is doxa (mere opinion).

            With this epistemic foundation we see that both the sage and the non-sage form beliefs about the world in the same manner. On the one hand the sage develops knowledge while the non-sage develops opinions. If there is no difference in the process by which our assent machines (minds) develop epistêmê then how does one become more sagacious? Indeed, just as the mind utilizes its natural software to operate in the world it also requires a hardware (a body) to interact in it. The Stoics deem this hardware our dispositions.

            Dispositions are formed through repeated assent to specific worldly content. For example, if as a child I was stung by a bee and had an allergic reaction I may form the opinion that all bees are bad and that they are to be avoided. Other assumptive opinions may build on from this one opinion, such as how others might react to a bee sting or that bees seek humans as prey akin to their cousins the mosquito. In either case, I have formed a belief about something in the world and hold it to be true in my mind (but which is in fact false). Every interaction (real or imagined) with bees thenceforth will reinforce this belief, this disposition, unless I find reason (other facts) to believe otherwise. I might observe bees interacting with plants and flowers and learn that pollen is their food of choice, or that bees make honey (my favorite condiment!). By assenting to these impressions, overtime my disposition to avoid bees may reform into one where I live in peaceful coexistence with them. In this way I become more aligned with nature.

            The example above highlights how dispositions are formed by gathering impressions. My initial apiphobia is a disposition formed from impressions that bees are bad. As I begin to observe bees in nature, spend summers as a beekeeper, and eat more honey I continue to gather good impressions of bees that ultimately change my beliefs and disposition. Moreover, if the impressions are kataleptic then I can even begin to gather a skillful knowledge (technê[9])of bees! As I unify my skilled disposition of bees with other skilled dispositions I move myself closer to sagacity. This necessitates that the non-sage gather an immense body of experience and exposure of the world in many different contexts and conditions if they wish to 1) recognize when a kataleptic impression is present, and 2) be unshakeable in their convictions to assent to that impression.

            It is at this point in our discussion that we will leave the epistemic background of Stoic theory of mind and transition to how emotions overlay onto this model. But first, a quick recap. The Stoics posit that only sages can gain knowledge of the world, while non-sages attain mere opinions of it. The difference results from the unshakeable conviction of the sage to have a strong assent only to kataleptic impressions. The result produces dispositions in the sage that accurately reflect nature and life, whereas the non-sage develops dispositions that may be counterintuitive or even counterproductive to developing knowledge. Since kataleptic impressions are available to both sage and non-sage, it seems as though epistemic progress can be made through careful and consistent study and practice.


The Structure of Emotions

The Stoics divide the emotions by genus and species. Genus classifications comprise the judgement of value within a temporal framework (either present or impending). The “presentness” or occurrence of an emotion has significant bearings on individual actions. There are three categories of value relevant to the Stoic theory- good (virtue), evil (vice), and indifferent (neither good nor evil). The difference between eupatheiai and pathê (both categorically emotions) hinge on this judgment of value. Eupatheiai are good emotions that result from correct judgments about what is good and bad (i.e. judgments about virtue and vice). Pathê are bad emotions and result from false judgments about what is good or bad (i.e. judgments about indifferents). Species classifications nest under the genus classification and detail specific emotions.

            Remember, emotions, as beliefs, are formed via the hegemonikon (mind) by assenting to impressions; however, there is also a predicate value associated with an emotion that isn’t present in other impulses. Emotions are derived from the following propositional structure: there is a (good/evil) (present to me/impending) and, because of this, it is appropriate for me to (contract/elevate) my soul. Using the general emotional framework, Seneca walks us through the causal chain of steps that develop emotions.[10] Recognize that there is only one stage where we have control over the emotions. First, the impression elicits a physiological response in us that is not in our control (such as blushing, sexual arousal, sweating, etc.). This is a pre-emotion (propatheiai) that neither requires nor extends from the rational-governing function of the soul. Second, once aware of the impression we have the option to assent or not. This is the stage at which we gain and maintain control (or not) of the emotion. Finally, if we have assented to the impression then it has the capacity to “run away” (we no longer control the follow-on effects). If we choose to withhold judgment or dissent to the impression then step three never happens.

            In other words, emotions have a three-stage lifecycle. They begin as physiological feelings (propatheiai) which the individual cannot rationally control. Then the agent forms (through a combination of their dispositions and preconceptions) an impression of the content and makes a value judgment of it. Finally, the acceptance of the impression positions the individual to be “carried away” by the emotion. Emotions are irrational impulses based on false value judgements of what is good or bad in the world. This process is important to understand not only for the purposes of applying ad hoc therapeutics, but also to identify where (at what stage) the preventative medicine must be used. Since occurrent value judgments combined with dispositions prime the emotional impulse, then we must work on changing the agent’s axiological views if we wish to temper emotional responses. 


The Four Components of Pathê

In order to polarize the difference between eupathetic emotions and pathetic ones we will focus on the occurrence and excessive traits of the pathê. This requires us to return to stage 2 in the emotional chain of events. Four components of pathê present themselves while only the first three are present for eupatheiai. The focus of this section will be on components 3 and 4 and I will continue their exposition in later sections.

            Component 1 involves a false evaluative judgment about an impression. Brennan notes that what distinguishes pathê from other impulses is simply that they falsely represent their objects as goods or evils, when they are really just indifferents.[11] Annas seconds this by explaining that there is always a reason for our actions, whether or not they are good reasons.[12] This component grounds the Stoic theory of emotions in that it clearly displays the difference between what is good and what is bad. Because emotions are impulses and impulses produce intentional actions then pathê ought to be eliminated because there is not case in which they will not produce follow-on wrong actions. All passions belong to the hegemonikon because the rational assent cycle is still occurring, just to false impressions of the world.

            Component 2 is the false judgment of appropriateness of follow-on actions. Emotions, as impulses, inherently generate actions to do something in the world, but they also include a second action on the individual’s soul. That is, an expansion or contraction of the soul couples with the external action in the world. This component acts in tandem yet is distinct from the first component in that the judgment of appropriateness is context dependent, not value dependent. For example, if I encounter an inflight emergency while flying a Blackhawk helicopter my initial reaction may be to determine that an evil is present to me; however, I overrule my distress and conduct my emergency procedures in accordance with my checklist to escape the situation. In this example, it would have been inappropriate for me to throw my hands up in despair and proclaim, “Zeus take the wheel!” Rather, my actions to remedy the emergency proved prudential despite my emotional reaction to the event. All emotions spring from the roots of error (wrong reason) and so must therefore be yanked out completely, not just pruned or clipped.[13] This example seems to provide support to educational methodologies that stress realistic training in realistic circumstances. Without any training, I might readily assent to the emotional impulse present to me in the cockpit and therefore not only contract my soul, but also throw my hands up and resign my fate to Zeus. Through training (of my mind), however, not only might I select better follow-on actions once I recognize an emergency, but the initial value judgement of the situation may never cross my mind as “an evil is present to me”.  

            Component 3 introduces temporal relativity by including the “freshness” (prosphatos) of an impression. That is, an emotion is considered “fresh” if it still elicits a strong response. “Freshness” also connotes a spatial component, that of proximity. If a close family member died yesterday, then I will feel a strong sense of grief now versus when I recall their death 30 years later. Time cauterizes pain. However, if I return to their grave on their birthday each year or return to the site of their death a “fresh” emotion may return to me as I recall the events surrounding their death. In this case spatial proximity elicits a temporal recall and I feel the emotion as if it is happening anew.

            “Freshness” is an important part of the Stoic theory of emotions because it highlights the fact that our imagination or memory (our hegemonikon) can present impressions to us now without the real impression existing outside of the mind. That is, if I can recall events from the past or imagine events in general then I have the capability of learning without experiencing. We might equate this to virtual reality in the sense that I can mentally experience things again and again if I desire. I can interact with these events and impressions, modify them, test and prod them from different angles. I can even run through hypothetical “what-if” scenarios and wargame cause and effect chains. The key takeaway here is that my mind’s ability for total recall and imagination gives me a feedback loop for learning and progress just as much as it can be a recurring nightmare and quagmire of negative thought. Component three indeed serves as a catalyst for continued progress towards sagacity or constant despair.

            To this point, the Stoics advocate for conducting mental pre-rehearsals of events in life.[14] By doing so, the individual can mentally experience the freshness of any and all possible, actual, or likely events that might occur. This helps to establish what we might call “realistic expectation management” and allows the agent to “work through” events prior to their manifestation. In this way the individual increases their chances of successfully encountering and persevering (or completely avoiding) the event. In that freshness deals with time, the Stoics think that as more time passes the less fresh an event becomes, thereby naturally healing the mental wound. Using pre-rehearsals is a method by which the individual can do quickly what time does slowly.

            Component 4 deals with the excessiveness trait of emotions and clearly separates eupatheiai from pathê. Eupatheiai can never be excessive whereas pathê contain an innate disposition for excess. In so far as the pathê originate from wrong reason (either through false value judgments, or appropriateness judgments) they are primed to perpetuate further indulgence in themselves. By this I mean that emotions only propagate the building of further emotions. There is no point or situation in which pathê help to clarify an impression to make it kataleptic or even non-emotional. For example, when I ask my son why he is slamming his hands on the desk and exasperatingly expressing “this is so stupid!” his only reply is that “his computer is frozen”. Clearly, he is angry about something and is expressing actions that he knows will elicit “what’s wrong?” responses from others. But when prodded about why he is angry, the only explanation he provides takes the form of circular logic based in the emotion itself. He clearly know why he is angry (because the computer is frozen), but he knows not why a frozen computer elicits the emotional response of anger. Perhaps if he had the “computer techne” and knew how to override the system responsible for causing the computer to freeze then his emotional retort to a frozen computer might be “nothing to get emotional about, I have the fix”. Not only is my son’s value judgment of the frozen computer wrong, but his appropriateness judgment of “how to react” not only doesn’t solve his problem but may very well translate over to other situations in his life.

            The excessiveness component of pathê starts with the conclusion of the vignette above. If we distill my son’s “problem” down to its source we might find that he is actually frustrated because he does not know how or why the computer froze or how to fix it. Or he may have time, energy, and effort put into an 8,000-word essay for his sixth grade Stoicism class that he doesn’t want to have to redo. Either way, he believes that the frozen computer is an evil present to him and therefore reacts in the only way he believes is appropriate- emotionally. It should be clear already that he can do better here to solve his “problem”. Nevertheless, with the “problem” framed as an inability to fix the situation or ignorance of the cause we can see that these “problems” readily bleed over to many other situations in life (Why won’t my baby stop crying? Why is my wife mad at me?, etc.). It would be my hope that his response to these “future problems” isn’t the same as it is now with his computer.

            So, why can pathê be excessive while eupatheiai cannot? The answer to this is rooted in the fundamental Stoic epistemological belief that nature can never be in excess. Nature is described as harmonious, ordered, and rational as nature is god and god is nature. A Stoic sage, then, who only experiences eupatheiai and participates in right reason can be said to live fully in accordance with nature. Again, through the transitive process, god is nature, nature is ordered, and the Stoic sage lives her life according to nature, therefore the Stoic sage is god-like and balanced. On the flipside, non-sages that participate in wrong reason and experience pathê are disposed to nature’s opposite—excess and disorder.

            Seneca reminds us that it is effort that perfects our goodness while nature perfects the goodness of god.[15] This means that constant vigilance and care must be taken in every assent we make. Careless assent to anything presented to us will more than likely result in warping the shape of our character. Over time, these bows will harden into dispositions that prime our everyday decisions. The shape of our soul then determines how we’ll interact with our environment emotionally and epistemically.[16]

            In summary, the hegemonikon is the ruling center of our soul and the entity with which we form dispositions, opinions, beliefs, and emotions. Depending on how we use it or abuse it, train or neglect it, will determine the status of its health and functionality. While not discussed in this paper, there is an abundance of information from Seneca and others on cognitive therapeutics and how they can serve as preventative and ad hoc measures for regaining control of one’s mind. With the foundation of emotions covered, we’ll now turn to other scholars for different views on one critical factor that separates eupatheiai from pathê—excessiveness.


Scholarly Responses

Pathê are described in various ways, but along a similar vein among many contemporary and ancient scholars. Generally, they are labeled as “excessive”, “disobedient to reason”, “disorderly”, “irrational”, “too vigorous” and “unnatural”. In this section we will compare scholarly differences in the way the pathê can be explained as excessive or disobedient to reason and examine what each gets right and wrong. Ultimately, I will present and expand on a view of pathê posited by Rosalind Hursthouse.


Tad Brennan’s View

Tad Brennan endorses a view that what makes emotions excessive is simply that they involve a false judgment of the first component of the pathê, a judgment of value about perceived good or evil that are really just indifferents.[17] An impulse is an emotion if it at least meets the contingent condition of the first component of pathê. Brennan places the antecedent cause of excessiveness in component one simply by the fact that endorsing pathê necessitates having made a false judgment of something being good or bad. No mention is made of the degree to which an emotion becomes excessive in this case, but we might brush this aside as inconsequential information. So long as what it means to live in accordance with nature, for humans, and thus in order to be virtuous, is to only assent to facts  of the world, then by definition any incorrect judgment of value will place the soul inconsistent with itself.

            Brennan, borrowing from Inwood, also discusses reservation in Stoic impulse. He describes reservation as “‘if’-clauses, the antecedents of conditions [such as] ‘if nothing intervenes to impede’, ‘if I can’, if Zeus permits’, etc.”[18] Reservation is important within the discussion of the Stoic theory of emotions because it provides the framework for which the Stoic sage can always have impulses consistent with nature. Moreover, and more importantly, it provides the non-sage an avenue by which she can epistemologically progress. For it must be that case that if I have an impulse to become more sagacious, if Zeus permits, then it will happen. The conditional statement is true even in the case where the antecedent claim is false (if Zeus does not permit my progression) for Zeus, as god and nature, serves as the consequent thereby verifying the truth of the overall impulse.

            What does reservation have to do with the excessiveness of emotions? It is important to remember that emotions, as impulses, bring with them false beliefs that something is good or bad. Eupathetic impulses occur only to the sage, selective impulses to both sage and non-sage, and pathetic impulses to only the non-sage. Eupathetic impulses are inherently reserved impulses in that they are derived from and in a fully rational human being who understands and adapts with the will of god. Pathetic impulses, however, do not display this reserved characteristic because they are formed on the basis of a misjudgment of value. That is, no matter how often I believe that “If Zeus wills it, tonight I will eat dinner” it can never be a truly reserved impulse because I value eating food as a good rather than an indifferent. Simply placing the “Zeus willing” statement in my claim doesn’t mean that I am actually framing my expectations realistically, as a good sage would. In my case it is more of a plea to Zeus, an irrational desire to want to eat food tonight based on the belief that eating food is truly a good. [MS24] Impulse with reservation, then, is not and cannot be an internal structural feature of an impulse in that both the fool and the sage share the same impulse structure. Reservation must exist external to the impulse itself in the differences between the sage’s and non-sages beliefs, dispositions, and understanding of the world.[19]

            Including reservation into the Stoic theory of emotion allows us to clearly see the difference between impulses that can lead to emotions and those that simply correspond to veridical judgments of how the world is. Reservation helps to eliminate “phenomenological frustration” (i.e. the painful psychological reaction to an unsatisfied impulse)[20] in the non-sage and solidifies the fluidity and consistency of the sage’s impulses in accordance with nature.


Margaret Graver’s View

Margaret Graver’s account of emotions centers on a difference of transcription of the word pleonazousa as ‘exceed’ or ‘be more’ or ‘go beyond bounds’ instead of the common transcription of ‘excessive’.[21] She clarifies that emotions ‘exceed or ‘go beyond bounds’ not from the initial impulse endorsing the appropriateness of the emotion, but from a later impulse endorsing a desire to stop the emotion.[22] That is, Graver attempts to explain how emotions exceed the agent’s reason after an emotion has been endorsed. She uses an example from Chrysippus to make her point. Chrysippus elaborates on the difference between walking and running. The impulse to do each is the same, “It is appropriate that I should now [walk/run]”, just as the impulse to cease the action is the same “It is appropriate that I should now stop [walking/running]”. The difference between the two is that the body literally “carries forward” and “exceeds” the mind’s command to stop. That is, when one is walking, they maintain control of their legs and can turn on a dime whereas when one is running, their legs take time to translate the impulse into action. It is in this way that Graver argues for an “exceedance” of the agent’s secondary impulse to stop an emotion rather than label an emotion excessive from its inception.

            We can see why this might be problematic for an individual who endorses the appropriateness (component 2) of feeling anger, despite their correct or incorrect value judgment (component 1), in that the initial impulse is easy enough to enact, but hard, if not impossible to cease despite a secondary impulse to do so. Moreover, how does one determine when it is an appropriate time to assent to a secondary impulse to stop an emotion? Walking and running help us visualize this dilemma in that the process is enacted on the same physical structure for each action, but one results in disobedience to the mind’s commands in terms of immediacy of compliance. It is the physical structure of the body that carries it beyond the mind’s impulse to stop and not legs themselves responding to the mind in a derelict fashion.

            So where does Graver place blame for the “exceedance” of emotions since it doesn’t technically fall into the four components listed in section one? Graver, via Chrysippus, clearly elaborates a dissonance between the rational mind and body, but where does the dissent lie between reason and emotion? Here, the problem becomes evident. The reasonable mind and the emotional mind are one and the same entities; therefore, once the endorsement of emotion occurs in the mind, it is only the mind that can stop it. Herein lies the conflict of interest. The mind has a hard time controlling something it has already said “this is ok” to. Once endorsed by the mind, nothing can assert control over emotions because there isn’t a separate faculty capable to do so other than the mind itself.

            Understanding emotions and reason as existing in and proceeding from the same, unified entity brings to life the physical nature of the soul in Stoic theory. Cicero makes the physical nature of the soul evident when he says “Emotions stand on slippery ground. One push, and they slide right down the slope. There is no way to stop them.”[23] It invokes imagery of how the mind ‘s movements take shape during certain psychic events. In the case of emotion it might be a straight line that teeters and totters along varying degrees of the x and y axis. One might also imagine that these shapes harden into dispositions overtime, pouring on viscous fluids to the already present slope or even increasing its rise over its run.


Rosalind Hursthouse’s View

Hursthouse departs from Stoic orthodoxy in describing the excessiveness of emotions as they develop from infancy through the use of language. She defends a view that separates the literal form of the excessiveness of emotions (based in component 1) with an ethically loaded form. To do so she uses the Chrysippian account of the excessiveness of emotions as “out of control” to promote the idea that emotions result from an underdeveloped defective rational soul. This means that her view places the point of concern at component 2, the false judgment of appropriateness. Hursthouse makes clear that her ideas need not apply to component 1 of the Stoic theory of emotions, however that it very well could. Eliminating component 1, in fact, allows more non-Stoics into the theory since they no longer have to buy the sufficiency thesis.[24]

            To set the stage for her argument, Hursthouse shakes down the Aristotelian view on the soul and collapses it into the Stoic (monistic psychology) view. She then teases out why even the Stoics don’t completely get their own theory correct by showing how human children have the same telos as human adults in so far as they are both human animals. Human nature is reason and reason requires language. From the get-go, human adults mold the human child’s  hegemonikon through language, naturally describing and prescribing to the child values (right or wrong) of things in the world.[25] This, unfortunately, potentially primes the child for committing to wrong reason (at least initially) and they develop and change their views and values as they grow into the world and into nature.

            I think that Hursthouse’s modification of the Stoic orthodox account of the child overlays exactly onto their epistemological model. Therefore, I concur with her that it more exactly describes both why and how children progress into reason and explains where individual differences arise. Eliminating “child” as a distinct sort of animal separate from “human” then places it as a “stage” or “condition” in human development and not a metamorphic evolution of animals with dissimilar natures. In this way, too, we can see how some humans never move beyond this childish stage.  

            Excessiveness in adults and children is analogous in the fact that the second judgment of appropriate action is almost always false[26]. So, even if my son’s reaction to the frozen computer is based in a true value judgment that “frozen computers are bad”, it nevertheless stands that there must be some true judgment to be made about how he can respond appropriately to the situation (e.g. by pressing CTRL+ALT+DELETE to access his computer’s control panel). An adult with an underdeveloped rational soul also runs into these issues not only with computers but with children, other adults in the locker room, etc. An underdeveloped defective rational soul belongs to child and adult alike in that both live kata pathos (through their emotions) rather than kata logos (through reason). So, in the sense that children and adults each have an incomplete understanding of the world, then it is the incompleteness of our souls that we must attune our attention towards if we are to complete its development. From this perspective the Stoic telos becomes apparent. The difference between the sage and the non-sage is that the sage’s soul is complete and fully developed whereas the non-sage’s is defective and incomplete. If pathê stand in the way of completing our rational development then it stands to reason that we should focus more effort on preventing their development rather than simply extirpating them after they take root. With this attitude in mind it becomes obvious the role that adults play in the development of the child’s rational soul.  


Pathê as Learned Behavior

Insofar as pathetic impulses result from wrong reason it seems to me uncontroversial therefore that human children display reason (albeit underdeveloped) from birth. In the same way that fully mature adults remain foolish and wicked until they choose to become virtuous the human child follows. They have the innate capacity for reason born into them and although sensorial satisfaction drives life at an early age the child nevertheless progresses along the continuum of least rational human to sage. Hursthouse makes this clear when discussing that we have many clear, consistent illustrations of how other animals act in nature during what stage in their life, but that we have none for humans.[27] That is, unlike the gazelle, which from birth immediately knows how to walk, eat, and avoid predators on its own, the human infant is dependent on others for life. The infant does not immediately understand or actualize its rational nature and is thus initially shaped and molded by its environment. Nevertheless, although an infant doesn’t perform actions that immediately correspond to realizing its telos, it does perform actions appropriate for its stage of human development. It is only later that we begin to question the maturation of the child if they haven’t developed skills (speech, walking, etc.) or shed habits (involuntary bowel movements, sucking their thumb, etc.). Otherwise, we generally know that humans will progressively develop through the mirroring of their parent’s actions, words, and expressions (monkey see, monkey do?).

            Unlike animals, humans need extensive training to actualize and realize their telos. Seneca makes my point more eloquently when he says “no animal requires more skillful handling than a human being and none stand in need of greater forbearance….we treat diseases and don’t become angry and yet this is a disease of the mind, requiring not just gentle treatment but also a healer who is in no way hostile to the patient”.[28] The disease he is referring to is vice in general, but emotions, as impulses disobedient to human nature, are the root of all evil.[29] If this disease is present from birth, how does it arise and how can it be healed? Again, we return to the unification of the soul as both the injurer and healer of itself.[30]

Our soul is a unitary body comprised of eight entities- the five senses, voice, reproduction, and the hegemonikon. The hegemonikon acts as the ruling center (aka the mind) and the receiver and perceiver of information from the senses. Impressions are formed in the hegemonikon based on the information gathered by the senses. At birth the hegemonikon is a tabula rasa ready to be written on. A healthy infant owns a fully unified hegemonikon and certainly has the voice to make its presence known. The missing factor here (in the orthodox Stoic picture) is lekta (sayables, language). As a category of things that subsist (huparchonta) along with time, space and void, lekta are what make the human mind special compared to non-human animals and plants. Lekta are required to actualize our rational capacity.[31] Despite the fact that infants cannot speak words, what the orthodox Stoic account of children discounts is the fact that their hegemonikon is primed and well-suited for receiving lekta. So, speech is not a necessary condition for humanness, but the understanding of lekta is. Moreover, the understanding of spoken lekta allow us to develop and use signs and symbols (e.g. American Sign Language and facial expressions) as transcriptions for understanding a spoken language. This can also be understood via the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” or “his face says it all”. Just as spoken languages must be heard to be understood so must sign language been seen and braille be felt. The method of conveying meaning need not be the determining factor for lekta and the human, it is simply the capacity and ability to use and understand lekta in its various forms.

            As the child develops and adults mold its hegemonikon through lekta imperfections are introduced. As they are not initially able to respond in kind and translate their impulse into action the hegemonikon is simply impressed upon them. We might say that dispositions are formed in the child without their consent. This means that concepts of value and descriptions of the world are transferred to the child and “assented” to without reservation. Obviously this might include many false value judgments of the world. From its genesis the child is equipped to achieve its telos, but success is initially contingent on others to activate the child’s reason. Nurture and upbringing then play a key, although not final, role here.


Oikeiôsis and Child Development

So, how can we correct for or eliminate the epistemological errors adults pass on to children? This is tricky to do in a society as diverse as the United States and within a global network that may not buy into a cosmopolitan view of the world either, but first and foremost begins with “buying in” to the educational model itself. I aim to use the Stoic theory of oikeiôsis as our general framework for education.[32]

            Generally speaking, oikeiôsis concerns the individual on a personal and social level and attempts to answer the question “what am I?” “A rational being” is the Stoic reply to the personal aspect. But what is their response for the social aspect? Considering the fact that our human nature is only brought forth within a social context with other humans it must be that the human is both a rational and social being. For without other humans we would not develop or use language and our human nature necessitates the use of lekta to achieve our telos. The gravity of this fact then makes every adult human responsible not only for themselves and their own development, but also for the healthy development of all other humans.

            “A rising tide lifts all ships” is an apt metaphor for this developmental process. If I hold myself accountable for my own rational development and the development of others, then I begin to put things in perspective. I may not yell at my kids because I realize they’ll more than likely start doing the same to me and others. I may invest more time, energy and effort into my community cleaning up and volunteering. Most importantly, I may temper or reevaluate my emotions because I recognize my own faults and ignorance and clearly understand that my telos is the same as all other human beings- living rationally.


[1] See Rachana Kamtekar Aidôs in Epictetus

[2] Seneca- On Anger, II.21.2

[3] Lorde, The Uses of Anger in Women’s Studies Quarterly (1981), 9.

[4] Bell, A Woman’s Scorn: Towards a Feminist Defense of Contempt as a Moral Emotion in Hypatia (2005), 85

[5] Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.40; Zeno, 7.40

[6] Margaret Graver discusses the Stoic concept of melancholia in her book Stoicism and Emotion.

[7] Agra, Barnes, Mansfield, Schofield, History of Hellenistic Philosophy, 738.

[8] Brennan, The Stoic Life, 67. Frede also provides a translation in Cicero Academica, I.42 = IG II-4.

[9] Cicero, Academica II.22

[10] Seneca, On Anger, II.2.1-3.5.

[11] Brennan, Reservation in Stoic Ethics, 172.

[12] Annas, Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, 105.

[13] Graver, Cicero on the Emotions, III.57.

[14] Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, III.58

[15] Seneca, Letters on Ethics, 124.14.

[16] R.J. Hankinson, “Stoicism and Medicine” in B. Inwood (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 305.

[17] Brennan, Reservation in Stoic Ethics, 172.

[18] Brennan, Reservation in Stoic Ethics, 153.

[19] Brennan, Reservation in Stoic Ethics, 177.

[20] Brennan, Reservation in Stoic Ethics, 167.

[21] Graver, Stoicism and Emotion, 67.

[22] Graver, Stoicism and Emotion, 68.

[23] Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 4.42.

[24] The Stoics believe that virtue (i.e. living in accordance with nature=reason) itself is sufficient to live a happy life. Contrast this with an Aristotelean view that enables externals to make life better or worse (e.g. health, wealth, good looks, etc.).

[25] Hursthouse, Excessiveness and Our Natural Development, 180.

[26] Hursthouse, Excessiveness and Our Natural Development, 184.

[27] Hursthouse, Excessiveness and Our Natural Development, 178.

[28] Seneca, On Clemency, 1.17.1.

[29] Hursthouse, Excessiveness and Our Natural Development, 191.

[30] Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, IV.58.

[31] Hursthouse, Excessiveness and Our Natural Development, 180.

[32] The theory of oikeiôsis is complicated and much debated and it is not my aim here to comment on the contemporary arguments about it; rather, I wish only to use the theory in a general sense, highlighting the personal and social aspects of the theory with respect to human development and the human telos. See Klein, The Stoic Argument from Oikeiôsis, and Annas, The Morality of Happiness, 267-268 for contemporary debates on the subject.


Algra, Barnes, Mansfield, Schofield, The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge    University Press (2008)

Annas, J., Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, The University of California Press (1994)

Annas, J., The Morality of Happiness [Morality] (Oxford, 1993).

Brennan, T., Reservation in Stoic Ethics

Cicero, On Duties,Cambridge University Press (1991)

Graver, M., Cicero on the Emotions, The University of Chicago Press (2002)

Hursthouse, R., Excessiveness and Our Natural Development (2012)

Inwood, B., The Cambridge Companion to The Stoics, Cambridge University Press

Inwood and Gerson, Hellenistic Philosophy Introductory Reading, Hackett Publishing Company     (1997)

Kamtekar, Aidôs in Epictetus [Classical Philology], The University of Chicago Press (1998)

Lorde, A., The Uses of Anger, CUNY Academic Works (1981)

Seneca, L., Letters on Ethics, The University of Chicago Press (2015)

Seneca, L., Anger, Mercy, Revenge, The University of Chicago Press (2010)


Written by <a href="https://www.callsignsandoval.com/author/matt/" target="_self">Matt Sandoval</a>

Written by Matt Sandoval

Hi, I’m Matt. I am an active duty Soldier in the United States Army. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in NeuroExperimental Psychology and a Master’s degree in Philosophy. I am highly competitive in all activities (work and recreation), but my personality is a strange concoction of Seinfeld and Stoicism. I am interested a wide-variety of philosophical and military topics and gravitate towards discussions of human experience. I have a penchant for planning, organization, and building teams. If you’re looking for information, advice, or dialogue on leadership, metaphysics, or a bit of wit infused with some healthy cynicism then I’m your guy.
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